Women add to legislative ranks in Alaska

Going against national trend, Republican women add to numbers

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2011

After years of lagging behind national totals, Alaska has very nearly caught up with the rest of the nation in electing women, although women still make up less than a quarter of the nation’s 7,382 legislators.

After gains by female candidates in November, Alaska now has 10 women in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate. There are 40 members of the House, and 20 senators. That puts Alaska within a few hundredths of a percent of equaling the national average.

What’s unusual about Alaska is that the gains in female legislators came from Republicans, not the Democrats that dominate down south.

“The women here just have a different spirit,” said Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla.

Menard chairs the Legislative Council, the committee that runs the business of the Legislature and contains all of the body’s top leaders.

While the Alaska Legislature has had a long history of women in powerful positions, until recently the raw numbers of women legislators have been well below their numbers in the population and their numbers elsewhere.

In the 2010 election, Alaska voters elected more women to office, said Katie Ziegler of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Women’s Legislative Network.

“That’s a state that certainly bucked the trend,” she said of Alaska’s increase.

While the percentage of women legislators grew in Alaska, it fell nationally. In Alaska, women now hold 23.33 percent of legislative seats, compared to 23.39 elsewhere.

In the Lower 48, the population is more female than male, 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent. In Alaska, by contrast, the population is 52.1 percent male and 47.9 percent female.

That may be due to an industrial base which tends towards male-dominated workforces such as fishing, logging, mining, military and oil field work.

“Women are less involved in a lot of the traditional occupations up here,” said Rep. Cathy Mużoz, R-Juneau, one of Juneau’s two members of the House of Representatives. The other, House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, is also female.

While the ranks of female state legislators in the Lower 48 are dominated by Democrats, in Alaska they’re mostly Republicans.

In Alaska, the women legislators are different from those down south as well, Menard said.

Menard said Alaska’s legislators may have somewhat different backgrounds than their counterparts elsewhere.

“I’ve shot a caribou, I’ve shot a moose, I love the outdoors,” she said. “Alaska is certainly very unique.”

Despite Alaska’s lagging numbers, the state has a somewhat progressive history of including women in public life. When Alaska became an official territory of the United States, the very first act of the new Territorial Legislature was to pass a suffrage bill allowing women the right to vote.

Both of Juneau’s members of the House of Representatives are women, and Mużoz knows the history well. Her grandmother, Thelma Engstrom, was elected to the Territorial Legislature from Juneau in 1947.

Among the issues she fought for, Mużoz said, was “equal pay for equal work.”

Some of Mużoz’ old family mementos show the changing times, however.

When Thelma Engstrom was elected, she ran under her husband’s name as “Mrs. Elton Engstrom.”

Ziegler said changing times are likely to mean more women’s numbers will continue to grow, despite this year’s setback nationally.

“Studies have shown that there isn’t anymore a bias at the ballot box,” she said.

When controlling for incumbency, open seat and other factors, women do as well as men before the voters.

“The question then is: Why haven’t the numbers grown more quickly?” Ziegler said.

“My best answer is that women aren’t running for office in greater numbers every year,” she said.

The issue, it appears, is that men decide to run for office in greater numbers.

Women interested in issues like strengthening families, good jobs, public safety, education and health care are likely to steadily bring more women into the Alaska Legislature, in both parties, Mużoz said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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